The first thing you see in the 40-acre woodland park of Monkey World is a colony of lemurs. On the day we were there they were sprawling on their backs in the sunshine and displaying their long, bushy tails. They looked as if they'd just had a wild party.
When feeding-time comes they start to get frisky. During our visit, a male called Chewy dived out of his cage, dangled by one arm from an oak tree, then dropped to the ground and snuggled up to a member of our group.
A keeper squirted water to shoo him away. Chewy then started dancing with a female lemur, mirroring her movements. They grappled delicately, exchanging little kicks and cuffs. Meanwhile his tribe launched into a chorus like nothing we'd ever heard: a croaking roar that conjured up visions of the jungles of Madagascar. Thrilling.
The sanctuary's other species are less anarchic, more under control; but they by no means resemble prisoners. They seem at ease in their enclosures. Very few show any signs of stress: no pacing, twitching or despondent brooding. The reason is that, as the keepers emphasise, every primate gets treated as an individual.
Many have been rescued from frightening predicaments. The macaques came from a laboratory where they were used in contraceptives testing. One of them, Shaky, tends to tremble as a result. Her companions looked more robust as they waved their big, pink behinds to attract the male - who yawned, displaying his fangs.
The keeper interpreted: "He's telling me `Stay away from my harem ...' and quite honestly he's welcome to them."
The slender capuchins are more approachable. One was rescued in Rolf Harris's Animal Hospital. Amazingly, in America they themselves are sometimes employed as nurses for paralysed people, performing such tasks as feeding and lifting the telephone.
Above all, what we sensed in the straw-sweetened air of Monkey World was the tenderness of primates. The two orang-utans, Ami and Banji, sat locked in a seemingly interminable embrace that made us a touch misty- eyed.
By contrast the male chimps displayed vigour and machismo. They somersaulted and beat their chests. One of their enclosures, a pyramid structure, was built by the Challenge Anneka team in just three days.
As well as the living attractions the centre also features a climbing- net where children keenly mimic the monkeys. Anyone needing still more stimulation may try the mini-motorbikes, slides, swings and assault course.
Suzy Bell from Kensington, south west London, took her children, Lucy, seven, and William, five.
Suzy: To be honest, to begin with I wasn't particularly interested in the trip. I had the impression that monkeys are grim and ugly creatures. But I really got into it. We'd planned to spend two hours. In the end we were there for four. It's just the right size.
I didn't realise monkeys had such human faces, and yet all that fur. It's eerie. I found the orang-utans incredibly graceful, as if they were moving in slow motion. They're also very gentle - an example to us all.
I thought all the staff were charming, and of course Chewy was adorable. I wanted to take him home. I wonder why there's so much stress on the chimps, in the advertising and on the T-shirts and so on. There's more to the place than that.
Lucy: I watch lots of nature programmes. Normally they have monkeys in them. I liked the monkey [a capuchin] that can look after you when you're older. Granny should have one.
I also liked Chewy. He looked like he was wearing a cardigan. His tongue was very soft. Gibbons are pretty - all fluffy and cuddly - or was it orang-utans?
We bought a toy monkey to go with my penguin, Pip. I'd like a real monkey. Mummy says we can't.
William: The best bit was Chewy. I wanted to cuddle Chewy. I have seen lions. Monkeys are nicer than lions. Monkey World is more fun than a museum. Chimpanzees are scary, though.
Getting there: Monkey World is in Longthorns, near Wareham, Dorset (freephone 0800 456600). By car it is a few miles north of the A352 between Wool and Wareham; by train it is a pounds 3 taxi each way (0800 666 666) from Wool station.
Opening times: daily, 10am-5pm.
Admission: pounds 4.75 adults, pounds 2.75 children, pounds 3.25 senior citizens and disabled, pounds 13 family ticket (two adults and two children).
Support: you can adopt a primate and receive its photograph, an adoption certificate, The Ape Rescue Chronicle, and a free one-year season ticket to Monkey World. For information on the campaign to save chimps from BSE experiments, contact Monkey World.
A few miles away from Monkey World you can stop for refreshments and a view of the brooding ruins of Corfe Castle. The National Trust Tea Room (01929 481332) at The Square, Corfe Castle, serves coffee and various cakes from 11am, then at lunch time come home-made soup (always vegetarian), sandwiches, quiche and salad, and filled jacket potatoes, as well as a few hot specials. Choices for afternoon tea include the Dorset cream tea with local home-made jam, and the Purbeck tea comprising two slices of locally baked bread, jam and a choice of cakes. There's a roast on Sundays, and they're happy to cater for young children, with two high-chairs, children's cups, bottles, small portions and a short children's menu.
From the Egon Ronay guide `And Children Come Too ...', Bookman, pounds 9.99Reuse content